Rancher Tim Pennell says you need only look out the window in DeWitt County to see what “fracking” has brought to the gently rolling terrain of South Texas.
“If you want to work, you come to DeWitt County and you can damn sure get a job,” said Pennell.
Fracking is helping create a gusher of jobs as evidenced by the the line of oil field workers at a barbecue stand that operates along the road next to Pennell’s house. A few hundred yards away, a drilling rig is running 24/7.
But all the trucks servicing the drilling rigs are ripping up the roads. And there is concern over how the fracking process is using enormous amounts of groundwater during a record drought.
Fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, uses millions of gallons of water per drilling operation, mixing the water with sand and chemicals, then injecting it into the ground to force out oil and gas from the rocky shale thousands of feet underground. It is highly controversial. Bulgaria has now joined France in banning it, and temporary bans are in place in New York and New Jersey.
As many as several dozen rigs are working in Gonzales and DeWitt counties, part of the oil and gas rich Eagle Ford Shale. And the drilling may have only just begun.
“What you’re going to see next is a very significant increase in oil production from these shale reservoirs,” said Dan Hill, a long-time professor who researches drilling and for a time worked for Marathon Oil and is now at Texas A&M’s Department of Petroleum Engineering.
With oil at $100 a barrel and natural gas prices dropping, Hill predicts there’ll be much more emphasis on using fracking to find oil.That may only mean more good news for local governments.
“It makes things a whole lot easier when it comes to budget time next year, I guarantee you,” said David Bird, the Gonzales County Judge.
The revenue the county gets from sales taxes is skyrocketing. In 2010, it totaled $77,000 for the month of December. In 2011, it tripled to $242,000. Could increases like that make Gonzales County the envy of struggling communities around the nation?
“Absolutely. It does put us in a good spot,” said Bird.
The tax revenue comes from the influx of workers and the sale of drilling supplies. In the town of Gonzales, one new hotel has already gone up and another is under construction. Housing is so tight that some workers are living in travel trailers lined up several rows deep at the city’s rodeo park.
But the counties may need the extra money to pay for road repairs as thousands of trucks service the needs of the rigs, hauling wastewater, oil and sand.
Then there’s the concern over water: fracking uses millions of gallons of it, sucking it out of underground aquifers during a time when ranchers and communities are watching wells dry up with the record Texas drought.
Driving down county roads, you see a lot of newly-dug ponds. But they’re not for the Longhorn cattle grazing nearby.They’re water for the rigs.
Tim Pennell, the rancher, is also chairman of the DeWitt County Soil and Water Conservation Board. He said the board is paying to have independent tests done on the aquifer. So far, he said the tests are reassuring.
“We paid a lot of money to have this test done to check it. We can’t tell where the fracking has affected our groundwater at all,” said Pennell.